Three-time pole vault state champion Sean Clarke just wrapped up his freshman outdoor season at the University of Pennsylvania. Clarke, who owned a personal best just over 16 feet as a Lyman Greyhound, set a new personal best of 17'06" at the NCAA Preliminary Round to make his first NCAA Championships. He finished 15th in Eugene, Oregon and earned second team All-American honors. We caught up with him to talk about his first year, being named one of the top underclassmen in his conference, and much more.
My first year in college was actually very smooth. I, like many athletes had heard all of the warnings that being a freshman in college is a huge adjustment but, in many ways I felt very ready for a new step in my life. It's amazing finding some of your closest friends among people you are living, eating and competing with and all that time spent together really amplifies the connection.
How has the academic workload differed for you?
School is significantly different in the sense that it's not mandatory to go to class and there are no parents or concerned teachers making sure you do your work but, especially for an athlete time is the most valuable resource. Early on I knew going to class and staying ahead of the longer term projects and assignments was what allowed me to have the peace of mind to focus on pole vault when it was time to practice.
What's been the biggest transition?
The biggest transition for me was having track and field turning into a true job as opposed to an extra curricular. Suddenly you walk onto campus for the first day of practice (which for most schools is the very first day of classes) and gear is being passed out in droves. That's when it began to hit me that really a college athlete isn't too far removed from an emerging professional. That realization for many of my teammates became a huge burden going into the first few meets as everyone was thinking about how this is really a long term try out, not everyone stays on the team as sad as that is. Looking back I realize freshman are almost never judged on essentially the entire first season of competition because, the coaching staff recognize that transitions take time. In the moment though it felt like a few poor meets could leave the coaches wondering whether the large investment would be worth it. For me getting my mindset into a more confident and positive place was the toughest transition.
In high school, you were a three time state champion. In your first year at the college level, you make NCAA's. What do you attribute the growth to?
Most of my growth as an athlete between my final state championship senior year and becoming an NCAA Second Team All-American was finding my love for the sport. It sounds crazy but in high school as much as I enjoyed vaulting I never thought about it or did anything to improve it outside of practice and competition. Once I got to college where you have a team full of very special athletes and so much more time is spent training I found that it became a true passion for me. That came to a head for me when I, in my mind, severely underperformed at our indoor conference meet with a height of 15' 9". That competition brought in a significant amount of doubt into my mind that I would ever be able to become anything more then an average collegiate vaulter. I started to think I was too short, not fast or skilled enough to make up for it. It was a hard time for me but, luckily I was fortunate enough to have Greg Duplantis, a former elite vaulter, willing to speak with me after my parents reached out to him. Greg was the same height as me and was able to help me get my confidence back and provide me with the small corrections I needed to dramatically change my vault. This all occurred right at the start of outdoor season and is what allowed me to go from a 16' 5" PR for indoor to eventually jumping 17" 6" at NCAA East Region to qualify for the Championship in Eugene. It just shows that sport in general is full of ups and downs, the better you get the more extreme that variation is. At the end of the day, everybody else remembers your highs but, pushing through the lows is what makes an athlete reach those peaks.
I am very excited to have been named Rookie of the Year for the Ivy League and recognize that is a great honor. There are many rookie's of the year and rising stars that have been forgotten though, it is just a step for me and I don't intend to relax and rest on my laurels. If anything it makes me even hungrier for the season to come to show everyone that my freshman season wasn't a fluke, I'm here to stay.
What's next for Sean Clarke and what are the goals for 2018?
My goals going into the 2018 season are first and foremost to help Penn chase a team conference title. We brought in an exceptionally talented freshman class and I believe if everything clicks we have a shot especially for outdoors. For myself I try to avoid setting height related goals but, it's no secret that I would like to continue working hard and get back to NCAA finals for indoor and outdoor. Neither is guaranteed and it will be a tough road with so many great competitors all vying for the same thing. I can only control myself and trust that if I have the abilities and the work ethic I'll make it back. I now know what it is like to compete with such high stakes and believe I am more equipped then ever to compete at that level
Lastly, what advice would you have for younger athletes?
For the younger athletes looking to pursue their collegiate dream, all I can say is never doubt yourself, it doesn't matter if others think you can do it. The body has limits, make sure your mind does not. It's true hard work isn't always enough to cut it as the level of competition gets higher but, without hard work I can guarantee talent alone won't make it. If you hold yourself accountable and can avoid letting others doubts work their way into your head, the results will come. Enjoy the journey!